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U.S. Hospitals Are Wildly Unprepared to Deal With How Bad the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Get

Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.For the last ten days, Dr. Calvin D. Sun has been working in emergency rooms throughout New York City and treating patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The 33-year-old physician specializes in emergency medicine, and he’s been filling in when…

U.S. Hospitals Are Wildly Unprepared to Deal With How Bad the Coronavirus Pandemic Could Get

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For the last ten days, Dr. Calvin D. Sun has been working in emergency rooms throughout New York City and treating patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The 33-year-old physician specializes in emergency medicine, and he’s been filling in when hospitals have a shortage of doctors.

Last week, he said ERs were rationing tests. “Next week the triage might be different: We might be rationing care,” he said. “Everyone could be intubated, the hospitals might be full, the ICUs are full, we don’t have enough ventilators.”

Physicians and nurses across the country have already seen an overwhelming number of patients. More than 2,300 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on Wednesday alone, bringing the national total up to 10,442. And 150 people have died. With a shortage of beds, intensive care units, respirators, doctors, or nurses, the country’s hospitals will soon be overwhelmed as those patients’ symptoms worsen.

“There’s concern about what we always call the staff, the stuff, and the space,” said Richard Branson, a respiratory therapist and professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Cincinnati.

“Do you have the people to take care of the patients? The space, the intensive care unit, to take care of them? Do you have all the devices — ventilators, IV pumps — to deliver medication, monitors to monitor how the patient is doing,” he added.

“What’s the point of testing if they’re not going to get admitted to the hospital?”

Right now, the U.S has about 924,000 hospital beds and 98,000 beds for patients who need intensive care. Even if the U.S. manages to stem the contagious respiratory disease as intended, the country will need eight times as many intensive care beds, according to a recent study by the Imperial College of London. And if the pandemic snowballs out of control, the U.S. would need 30 times more beds.

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Another study from Harvard estimates that if 40% of the country gets the novel coronavirus over the course of a year — researchers’ mid-range estimate — the country will need double the number of available hospital beds. If 60% of the country contracts COVID-19 within six months — the worst case scenario — the U.S. hospital system would be completely overwhelmed. The country would need seven times more beds.

To make up for the lack of beds, the federal government has already sent Navy hospital ships to the east and west coasts, the epicenters of the U.S. outbreak. But even those ships only have about 1,000 beds.

It’s not just beds

The country’s hospitals also don’t have enough ventilators, which help people breathe when they can’t on their own. The U.S. healthcare system has an estimated 160,000 ventilators now, with an additional 12,000 or so in secret federal stockpile. It’s not clear how many the U.S. will need to treat the influx of coronavirus cases, but hospitals don’t have enough right now.

New York State alone is expected to need 30,000 more of them. In just a few weeks, doctors in New York could find themselves in a position of having to decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t.

“If things are going the way they are, and the system is about to collapse and we don’t have enough ventilators,” Sun said, “a committee decides whether to even offer this patient a ventilator or palliative, compassionate care.”

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